Matthew Spotts' writing about his experiences with the homeless in Washington DC, as well as my own encounters sketched here, were the seeds for this piece. I learned the story of the monks of Tibhirine from a poem by Marilyn Nelson, The Contemplative Life, published in Image (61, p. 15).
Abba Jacob wiped his eyes.
Interval of birdsong from the veranda.
He's seeing not an abstract God,
but a God who has assumed a face,
a God who shows him this face
in every one of those Muslim brothers and sisters,
including the one who kills him.
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 25 June 2009.
My tears became my bread day and night, as they said to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” — Ps. 42:3
We have the same conversation each time we meet. Most often he happens upon me sitting in the pews of the city church where my spiritual director lives, though once we met on the street outside.
“What is your parish?” he wants to know.
“Our Mother of Good Counsel.”
“In Bryn Mawr?”
“Yes.” I am terse as he.
“Why are you here?”
“What are you praying for?” And here is where I inevitably falter, faced with a question I’m unwilling to answer, even to myself.
At first my reaction was irritation. I’m there to gather my thoughts before I see my director, to slow down, to be still before God. This felt like an intrusion. “Why are you here?” I would think. Until the day it occurred to me that I was walking out of this recurring, slightly exasperating conversation into a recurring one with my director that sounded the very same themes: “How is your prayer?” he asks.
The psalmist struggles with these questions, too. “Where is your God?” he is asked. “Where is my God?” I wonder. Mother Teresa spoke of encountering Christ in His most distressing disguises, in the poor, the neglected and the rejected. The people who make us uncomfortable. Is this Christ standing here before me, distressing me with questions? Is this the God for whom I eat salt tears, for whom I thirst?
Laid out here on paper, the answer seems easy. Yes. Yet when I’m confronting the reality in the aisle of Old St. Joe’s, my response seems muddled and I wonder what to do.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ reminds us that in caring for our brothers and sisters, particularly those on the margins, we are caring for Him. Mother Teresa was so drawn to Christ in these challenging guises that she founded a religious order to care for the poor and dying. Yet John Chrysostom, in reflecting on Matthew, knew that meeting Christ in these places was potentially uncomfortable. “And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” Or to overcome my reluctance to answer?
While we might think it enough in these moments to care for the need that immediately presents itself, Jesus invites us to enter more deeply into a relationship. To listen to what He is asking and to respond, in word as well as deed. To engage him in conversation, to answer hard questions.
What might we say to Christ encountered under difficult and even harrowing circumstances? Perhaps thank you. In 1996 seven Trappist monks of the Abbey of Tibhirine in Algeria were brutally murdered. The monks had known they were in danger, but mindful of their vow of stability they remained, continuing to be present to their neighbors who were not able to flee. Prior Christian de Cherge left behind a letter with a message for his killers “who would not be aware of what [they] were doing. “Thank you,” he said, “for in you, too, I see the face of God.”
Where is my God? He walks among us, bearing the welcome embraces of friends and the disconcerting questions of strangers. What will I say the next time Christ, in a distressing disguise, walks up to me and asks, “What are you praying for?” I’m praying for gratitude, for the gift of His presence in your presence.
God and judge of all, You show us the way to Your kingdom is through humility and service. Keep us true to the path of justice and give us the reward promised to those who make a place for the rejected and the poor. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C